Revisiting the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’

COMMENTARY: Now is the time to once again return to the actual conciliar texts, and those of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, in order to expose the capitulation to the spirit of the age.

The Vatican
The Vatican (photo: Unsplash)

The topic of “synodality,” which is much in the news these days, seems to mean very different things to different people. In many ways, it is a laudable attempt at increasing the participation of local bishops and their dioceses in the governing of the Church. 

But there are also those in the Church who are now inappropriately using synodality as a means for altering settled Church doctrines in ways that are strikingly similar to the progressive theological misinterpretation of Vatican II in the immediate aftermath of the Council. 

The Second Vatican Council, convened 60 years ago, sought to complete the unfinished business of the First Vatican Council, which had defined the dogma of papal infallibility but had to cut short further deliberations due to the Franco-Prussian War creating unstable conditions. Vatican I was therefore never “officially” closed, which had the unfortunate effect of leaving the dogma of papal infallibility in a kind of isolation from other forms of authority in the Church, which then had the further unfortunate effect of creating an exaggerated sense of the pope as some kind of “oracle of Delphi” whose every word was viewed as of supreme authority. Furthermore, bishops came to be seen as kind of branch managers of “Papal Inc.,” with very little authority of their own that was not delegated to them by the pope as a share in his absolute authority. 

However, Vatican II never mentions the word “synodality” and chose instead to use the term “collegiality” to denote a new emphasis on shared authority between the pope and the bishops. In order to achieve this, the Council returned to the more ancient and traditional doctrine that bishops have their authority by divine right and as a direct product of their consecration as bishops — and not by papal delegation. 

The pope remained the supreme authority in the Church, but now viewed in proper context as the Petrine focal point of the Church’s broader authority, which also resides in all other bishops sub Petro et cum Petro (“under Peter and with Peter”). This is not synodality as such, but it is a nod in the direction of its animating theology, which seeks to implement the Catholic principle of subsidiarity in more effective ways. In essence, subsidiarity means that decisions should be made at the most local level possible, with intervention from a higher authority only when necessary. The goal is the same in both “synodality” and “collegiality”: Decentralize the Church’s governance from an exaggerated papal centralization, while still maintaining the papacy as the Church’s supreme authority. 

So far so good. But many of the progressive champions of synodality are explicitly invoking, once again, the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” as the same spirit of the synodal way. And, therefore, by way of response, this requires us to revisit what was meant by “the spirit of the Council” in order to counteract the current agitations for deep change in Church doctrine and practice.

The conciliar documents as such articulated a theological vision which in no way underwrote or promoted these progressive theological distortions. But there quickly arose an interpretive theory after the Council, which has since come to be known as the “Bologna school” of theology, since its main proponents were centered there, which claimed that the actual documents of Vatican II did not really matter as texts with a specific theological meaning and trajectory. 

The texts were not as important as the dynamical process for change that they had initiated and thus, in the eyes of the progressives, in many ways were outdated as soon as they were promulgated. In other words, the processes of “change” that they initiated transcended the actual texts in the very act of their promulgation. It did not matter therefore what the texts really intended. All that mattered was they had initiated a process of change and that process was now more important than the actual documents themselves. 

What mattered was the Council was a dynamical “event” that set in motion a new “process” for radical change. This “council as dynamical event” approach led to an open affirmation that the Council represented a deep rupture with all that came before and that it had ushered in a radically new era where the Church had an opportunity to hit the “reset” button. This was then wedded to vague notions of the conciliar “people of God” motif, which was then transposed into the sociological language of modern egalitarian democratic impulses and ascribed this action as the very movement of the Holy Spirit who is constantly “surprising” us with “new things.”

Thus, to oppose this dynamical process set in motion by the Council is to read the documents like a Catholic fundamentalist and to thus stand in “rigid” pharisaical opposition to the wonderful revolution being ushered in by the Holy Spirit. 

And, of course, the reason why the promoters of “the spirit of Vatican II” were largely successful in this project of co-optation and distortion was that they had the cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s on their side and the full weight of the emerging colossus that was television culture and its great universalizing of the values of secular modernity. 

The post-conciliar progressives had the pill and Norman Lear on their side, as well as the vast majority of folks in the theological guild who seemed to have collectively lost their minds and their faith, which was one of the greatest derelictions of vocational duty in the history of the Church. 

Here was a Council that was deeply theological in nature, which required an equally profound theological analysis, being treated by a majority of theologians as a mere launching pad for the project of cultural accommodation to the ideology and structures of our dominant cultural ethos. 

This is why within a very few short years after the Council you see Catholic intellectuals like de Lubac, Ratzinger, von Balthasar, von Hildebrand, Bouyer and Maritain ringing the alarm that what was going on in the post-conciliar chaos was absolutely not what the Council had supported. And they had good reasons for saying that. 

And once again my point is a simple one: Namely, that the post-conciliar debates over the Council do not constitute proof that the Council was simply too confusing and all over the map. This is, of course, a claim that has been made by many before me, not the least of which were Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, but it is a true claim and one that needs repeating over and over.

In this regard, I agree with Dominican theologian Father Aidan Nichols in his wonderful little book Conciliar Octet, where he discusses the need for the faithful remnants in the theological guild to step up to the plate in order to provide the magisterium with a set of workable tools for combatting the deliberate distortions of the Council. He says the following:

“A task of discrimination is evidently recommended. … It is a work Roman Catholic theologians should be doing now for the sake of the future of their tradition, after the hiatus caused by the pontificate of Pope Francis with its sponsorship of ‘paradigm shifts,’ classic expression as this is of a ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.’ … The Second Vatican Council can be defended against the charge that it … represents such a rupture. … But first there must be the will to defend it, and not, rather, to rejoice in ecclesial chaos after the manner of the demons of Hell.”

And just as the progressive wing of the Church in the post-conciliar era had little regard for the normative and binding character of any Church teaching, so too today do we see among some who are promoting synodality as a “movement of the Holy Spirit” a similar disregard for settled teaching and actual magisterial documents. 

There is a kind of Gnostic pitting of “spirit” against “letter” going on here that allows the modern proponents of synodality as a “dynamical event” to do an end-run around Church teaching by treating it, shockingly, as opposed to this new movement of the Holy Spirit — a “spirit” that now sounds a lot like the discussion on The View

For example, the wonderful theological teachings of Pope John Paul II on moral theology and women’s ordination are not so much explicitly opposed as they are just summarily ignored as part of the Church of moribund yesterday, which the Holy Spirit, through synodal “listening sessions” attended by 1% of Catholics worldwide, is now moving us beyond into the brave new world of a “Church on the move.” But a Church on the move to where exactly? 

Therefore, now is not the time to toss in the towel in a spirit of defeat in our exhaustion over the seemingly endless debates over the Council. What if Athanasius had done the same? 

Now is the time to once again return to the actual conciliar texts, and those of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, in order to expose the current progressive co-optation of the synodal way for what it truly is: capitulation to the spirit of the age. There is indeed a “spirit” at work here. But it is not the one the progressives claim it is.

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